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Retired judge to lead review into the non-jury Special Criminal Court


The review group will be led by former Court of Appeal Judge Michael Peart. Photo: Courtpix

The review group will be led by former Court of Appeal Judge Michael Peart. Photo: Courtpix

The review group will be led by former Court of Appeal Judge Michael Peart. Photo: Courtpix

A retired judge is to lead a review of the laws allowing for the non-jury Special Criminal Court.

The move was approved by the Cabinet in what will be the first major examination of the issue in two decades.

The court was set up in 1972 during the Troubles and deals with paramilitary and gangland crime.

While successive governments have argued for its retention due to fears of potential witness intimidation, some groups have called for its abolition, claiming defendants are denied constitutional and human rights.

The review group will be led by former Court of Appeal judge Michael Peart and includes NUI Galway law professor Donncha O’Connell, former advisory counsel to the attorney general Caitlín Ní Fhlaitheartaigh, legal academic Alan Greene, barrister Anne-Marie Lawlor SC and former Department of Justice deputy secretary general, Ken O’Leary.

The Offences Against the State and Criminal Justice legislation underpinning the court needs to be renewed by the Oireachtas each year. The deadline was only narrowly met last year due to delays in forming a government after the general election.

The yearly renewal has been consistently opposed by Sinn Féin. However, last year it abstained in the vote, rather than voting against it, after then justice minister Charlie Flanagan signalled the legislation would be reviewed.

His successor, Helen McEntee, brought a memo to Cabinet on the issue today.

Her spokesman said she was firmly of the view that the Offences Against the State Acts and the Special Criminal Courts had served the State well in tackling subversives and organised crime gangs.

“They have long been a necessary part of the State’s arsenal in this regard.

"However, it is important to occasionally review the operation of our important institutions,” the spokesman said.

The last major review of the court was in 2002, when a committee chaired by former Supreme Court judge and attorney general Anthony Hederman made a majority recommendation that threats posed by paramilitaries and organised crime were sufficient to retain the court.

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Since then it has been the subject of criticism from the United Nations (UN), Amnesty International and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties.

In 2008, the UN’s human rights committee said the State needed to monitor whether the continuation of the Special Criminal Court was justified, with a view to its abolition.

The view was reiterated by a UN human rights council special rapporteur in 2013.

In 2018, the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland recommended a “comprehensive review of security legislation”. During the debate last year on renewing the legislation, Rise TD Paul Murphy said existing laws for the court were a breach of “civil liberties and human rights”.

People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith and Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy called for the Dáil to take heed of warnings from the United Nations and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties.

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